― 61 ―


THE Christmas holidays were approaching, and the young schoolmaster was to leave Kanga Creek, not for his holidays but for ever. His father had written from England that a passage home had been taken for him in the ship St. Vincent, which would sail from Sydney immediately after Christmas. He was nearly beside himself with excitement. Now, at last, his ambitious dreams were to be realised. He would go home, work hard, win for himself a place in the world.

That was certainly the strongest impulse within him. Yet his life had become more complex of late, and his career no longer seemed to him, as it had seemed six months before, a burden to be lifted with a light heart, and borne as easily as he bore the bucket from the well. Now there was a certain heaviness at his heart, a dull tangle of emotions which he could not unravel, and had no inclination to try to unravel. He was beginning to know the conflict of instincts which as they develop fetter each other's actions and make our deeds no longer merely instinctive but heroic or unheroic.

He walked up and down by the lagoon waiting. It was here that he had first spoken to her, and now he had come to say goodbye. As he walked rapidly up and down, filled with the new tumult of feverish thoughts, his eyes seemed to fall constantly on a dead tree he had often seen before, a tragic tree flinging out two bare gaunt arms, as though immobilised in the agony of some deadly stroke. In after years that pathetic vision of arrested life always came to mingle half absurdly—perhaps only half absurdly —with the memory of this meeting, with, indeed, the entire memory of this episode in his life.

The lagoon lay with its faintly sloping edges, peaceful and silent as ever, the unnatural peace and silence as of another world.

  ― 62 ―
He sat down, with a sense of oppression, on one of the fallen trunks that lay about, until the sharp crackle of dry sticks afar made him turn to meet the approaching figure. There was the same old Gainsborough hat, the same long blue princess dress clinging loosely to the tall figure that came striding lithely over the elastic soil.

He rose and they met, with the self-conscious restraint that never quite left their meetings now, and they sat down side by side on the log, while he told briefly all that had happened, and how he had sent in his resignation and was now come to say goodbye. She asked him about his plans with the same frank curiosity as on her first visit to the Creek when she inspected his household arrangements, and he answered all her questions.

As they talked side by side the new defiance that had lately hardened within him began to melt. A flood of memories came back, in which this woman's form was deliciously mingled. As the hour approached for parting he slipped his arm around her waist and drew her towards the spot where the manna-gum stood. She laughed as though she divined the thoughts that stirred him.

“Do you know,” she said, after a little pause, holding his arm and looking at him, “I think you are just a child.”

She smiled slowly a serious almost maternal smile. He felt as though he had been judged and sentenced. Once more he began to freeze into an awkward sullenness which all her efforts to be cheerful failed to thaw.

When at last they bade each other goodbye they only shook hands, heartily but perhaps with a little embarrassment. With his last glance he saw that the eyes in her uplifted face were glistening with unshed tears. Then as he walked away a great desire came to him to throw his arms around her and kiss her. But it was too late.